For more than a decade, researchers have suspected that the ultraviolet nail dryers used for gel manicures may be associated with a higher risk of skin cancer if used routinely. The dryers expose people to ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which is known to cause skin cancer from other sources, such as sun exposure and tanning beds.
A study published last week provides new evidence: It found that radiation from UV nail dryers can damage DNA and cause permanent mutations in human cells – which in turn is linked to cancer risk.
Such cell damage “is just one step on the road to cancer,” said Dr. Julia Curtis, an assistant professor in the department of dermatology at the University of Utah, who was not involved in the new research.
However, the study did not look at real people: the researchers exposed human and mouse cells to UV light from nail dryers. They saw that after 20 minutes, 20% to 30% of the cells had died. After three consecutive 20 minute sessions, 65% to 70% of the cells had died.
Previous studies have linked only a few cases of skin cancer to gel manicures. A 2020 analysis identified two women in the US who developed melanoma on the backs of their hands from 2007 to 2016. Both had undergone gel manicures for years. Overall, however, the researchers found that type of manicure — which involves applying a gel polish that then has to be cured under UV lights — has little to no link with cancer.
“At this point, I would recommend or advise people to just weigh the risk,” said one of the new study’s authors, Maria Zhivagui, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “Understand what this does. There’s damage at the DNA level. We don’t know if it’s carcinogenic.”
Scientists will need to study the effects of UV nail dryers in real people before they can draw firm conclusions about cancer risk, she added. Both Zhivagui and Curtis said the process could take another 10 years given the slow pace of the investigation.
“UV nail lamps didn’t really get popular until about the 2000s, I’d say, so it can be really hard to make that cause and effect,” said Curtis.
Still, Curtis and Zhivagui said they never get manicures that require UV nail dryers in their own lives.
“You won’t find a dermatologist who doesn’t say that UVA ages us and increases our risk of skin cancer,” says Dr. Loretta Davis, the chair of the dermatology department at Augusta University in Georgia. “So anything done on purpose with that type of device will contribute.”
Davis said she doesn’t get manicures but would worry about the aging effects of UVA radiation if she did.
The harmful effects of UV rays accumulate over time, and Davis’s own research has suggested that the more often people get manicures with UV nail lamps, the greater the risk of damage may be.
Using a UV nail dryer every other week is “probably too much,” she said.
“If you’re going to do this for a wedding and want to feel special, sure,” added Davis. “But to do it routinely, no, I wouldn’t.”
Studies have not yet determined whether there is a safe level of UVA exposure in the context of manicures or exactly how much can pose a health risk.
Zhivagui’s previous research has suggested that placing acrylic nails with UV light every three weeks for a year could produce more intense UVA radiation than sunlight does during that time.
The three dermatologists agreed that wearing fingerless gloves when using a UV nail dryer and applying a waterproof, broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 50 SPF before a nail appointment might provide some protection.
They also said people who are older, have lighter skin, or are taking medications that make them more sensitive to light, such as certain blood pressure medications, should be more careful.
Davis said some people might decide UV exposure from gel manicures just isn’t worth the gamble, given how much we still don’t know.
“People don’t want to find out five years later that they were doing something risky and they could have taken precautions to protect their hands,” she said.